Home & Garden Columns
“It’s a castle!” a friend said when I showed her a picture of the turreted Gester House, at 2620 Piedmont Avenue in Berkeley.
With five bedrooms and two baths it’s not really a castle, but it does make you look twice. The unpainted concrete exterior, formed to resemble stone, is quite out of the ordinary for a Berkeley home. It looks a bit like an English country villa, set back from the street behind a green lawn.
The house is on the market for $1,090,000 and is open this coming Sunday, July 22, from 2-4:30 p.m.
William Burr Gester, the original owner, was a civil engineer who had the house built in 1905 of reinforced concrete with a “Roman stone” concrete veneer. It’s thought to be the first reinforced concrete residence in Berkeley, completed just in time for the 1906 earthquake.
The gray “Roman Stone” exterior is concrete mixed with bits of stone and cast into concrete blocks that look like cut stone. Some are deeply rusticated to resemble rough-hewn stone.
“The whole building rose and fell as a single mass, without creak, or groan, or complaining strain,” Gester wrote after the earthquake. Residents were thrown to the floor by the vigorous shaking, and “pictures, furniture, the chain-hung electroliers, everything not fastened…was put into instantaneous motion, the commotion and din being indescribable.”
However, there was only a small amount of damage to one chimney and parts of the entry porch, serving “as an example of the value of a simple type of ferro-concrete construction.”
Although the house weathered the earthquake, the Gesters—William, wife Kate, and two sons who both became geologists—don’t seem to have lived at 2620 Piedmont for very long. By 1908 they were at 2800 Derby a few blocks to the southeast.
The arcaded entry porch has an interesting seating nook, hanging lantern, patterned concrete floor and painted wooden ceiling.
Inside there’s a central stair hall, and a large living room to the right, across the front of the house. The living room incorporates the first level of the turret—note the intricate woodwork of the turret floor. A columned fireplace is now painted white but looks to be made out of cast concrete, or stone.
West of the stair hall there’s a dining room then a large back bedroom. Kitchen, storage pantry, butler’s pantry, a full bathroom, laundry porch, and two small hallways round out the first floor.
A substantial concrete stair grandly descends to the garden from the back door, complete with back doorbell, probably for tradesmen.
Upstairs, a large master bedroom extends across the eastern front of the house and two other bedrooms shelter under a south-facing dormer. A large fourth bedroom at the back accesses a small deck and metal spiral staircase to the yard.
Gleaming inlaid hardwood floors (carpet in the upstairs hall), paneled doors, and painted woodwork all continue from downstairs. The second floor bathroom has a venerable marble corner sink. A galley kitchen, accessible from both hall and back bedroom, is tucked in next to the bath.
A 1977 historic resources survey says “the house has been divided into apartments.” Two kitchens and the second “front door” from the main porch (note the holes for two doorbells) seem to attest to that.
An architectural history of this house would be immensely intriguing. Is there a box beam ceiling similar to that in the entry hall, hidden under the apparently dropped ceiling in the dining room? Was the built-in seat moved across the room from where a window bay was altered for that second wire glass “front door”?
Is a vanished doorway to the kitchen indicated by the jog in the crown molding in the front hall? Why were four of the window sashes in the two-story tower converted to vertical divided lights?
What was the original finish on the walls? Some who saw the house years ago remember the dining room at least as having dark woodwork, but all wainscoting, casework, and trim is now painted in white and light tones.
An early photo shows that a high, horizontal window in the living room was replaced decades ago by two side-by-side double-hung windows.
The wide yard—grass, ivy, some shrubbery, a large redwood—has a concrete parking slab to the side. Look up. From the rear, under its hipped roof, the house appears much smaller than it seems inside.
The interior is refurbished, carefully painted and polished, and lightly staged. At present, though, most of the spacious rooms are as empty as the known historical record. With a century old house like this, one wonders about the procession of people who once called it home.
Something is known of Joseph Leonard (1850-1929) who built the house, real estate man, designer, contractor, and yachtsman, he was profiled in detail by Dave Weinstein in the April 10, 2004, San Francisco Chronicle.
Leonard was an active and energetic businessman, originally from Texas, who developed the Ingleside Terrace district in San Francisco and what’s known as Leonardville, a distinctive Victorian neighborhood in Alameda.
Weinstein writes that Leonard subscribed to a “Romantic, anti-urban vision” that provided comfortable, detached, houses on large lots close to street railways connected to denser commercial and office districts.
Leonard integrated elements of both Victorian and Arts and Crafts design into his buildings. The Gester House is not conventionally “Victorian”, but if you added painted wood shingles and decorative trim to the exterior, it could pass for a Queen Anne.
Only a few other Leonard-built houses have been identified in Berkeley. They range in style from Colonial Revival to brownshingle, to Classic Box.
The calm neighborhood surrounding 2620 Piedmont is enclosed by busy College Avenue, Dwight, Way, Warring Street. To the north is the UC student-oriented Southside district, to south and southwest the determinedly single-family residential Claremont-Elmwood.
A block and a half north and you’re in a district of apartment houses, fraternities and sororities. But traffic barriers on Etna and Piedmont help make this 2 x 3 block district a quiet enclave with large, mainly single-family, homes and lots of greenery.
Most of the surrounding houses are a century or more old. The land where they stand was acquired by pioneer farmer and Irish immigrant John Kearney around 1860.
In 1876, he subdivided this portion into large “villa” lots. Some homes were built, but much remained fallow until the College Avenue streetcar line came through early in the century. Then, within a decade, the district rapidly built up.
Barbara Reynolds at Prudential California Realty is the listing agent for 2620 Piedmont. www.barbarareynolds.com
To reach the house while avoiding traffic barrier confusion, head east two blocks on Derby Street from College Avenue, then turn left onto the 2600 block of Piedmont.
This article will eventually be expanded at berkeleyheritage.com into a more detailed photo essay on the house and its history.
The Gester House, at 2620 Piedmont Ave. is open Sunday, 2-4:30 p.m.
Photograph: The turreted Gester house dates to 1905 and is thought to be the oldest reinforced concrete residence in Berkeley.